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How to Use a Water Bath Without Landing in Hot Water

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: A hot water bath, called a bain marie, may seem unnecessary and difficult—but the perfect custard you'll have afterward begs to differ.

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Normally, a hot bath sounds relaxing. You get to light a candle, play some cheesy music, and sit in bubbles until your fingers wrinkle like prunes. It’s nice and soothing.

A kitchen hot water bath, known as a bain marie, is a little less calming. It involves boiling water, hot ramekins, and potentially burnt fingers. Yet to make a flan or a crème brûlée, you’ll need to put your custard in a bain marie while it bakes in the oven. The hot water evenly distributes heat around the custard, ensuring that the eggs don’t curdle. It also prevents the top from drying out and splitting before the inside is fully cooked. Without a bain marie, you’ll have a rubbery and cracked dessert. 

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More: Why cheesecakes crack, and how to stop it.

For the sake of smooth custard, it’s worth conquering any fear of boiling-hot water. And there are some tricks to making a water bath a little easier. So take a deep breath, put on your oven mitts, and follow these tips:

Find a Perfect Fit
You’ll need two pans—one large and one small. For the small pan, glass or porcelain is best. Metal pans work, but since the custard can burn more easily, you’ll have to watch it more carefully. The large pan, ideally a roasting dish, should have high sides. The small pan should fit snugly inside, with a 1/2- to 1-inch gap around it. If it’s too tight, there won’t be enough water to cook the custard properly. If it’s too loose, you are much more likely to burn yourself. If you’re making individual custards, you’ll want to use ramekins. Just make sure that the ramekins are nestled closely together so that they don’t slide around.

Make it Hot
Use a tea kettle to heat your water. The spout makes pouring water much easier, reducing the likelihood of splashing. Once your water is ready, place the baking dishes in the oven but leave the oven door open. Carefully pour the water into the larger dish and around the sides of the smaller one.

Only Go Halfway
The water just needs to come halfway—not all the way—up the sides of the smaller dish. If there’s too much water, it can splash into the custards and ruin them. If there’s too little, they won’t cook properly. Check on the water level as the custard cooks, making sure that it stays high enough. If it starts to evaporate too quickly, just pour in more hot tap water using a kettle (or a glass measuring cup with a spout).

Exit Gracefully
Once your custard is cooked, it might be tempting to pick up the whole pan and set it down as quickly as possible. Resist that urge, and instead just remove the smaller pan from the oven. Set it on a rack to cool, turn your oven off, and wait a bit. Once the oven is cool, remove the pan of water. It will still be warm, but it shouldn’t be as dangerous.

Now that you have these tips in your back pocket, try using a water bath to make a silky Vietnamese Coffee Flan.

Vietnamese Coffee Flan

Serves 6 to 8

3/4 cup sugar
One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
3 3/4 cups whole milk
5 large eggs
4 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee dissolved in 4 teaspoons hot water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Do you have any water bath tricks? Let us know in the comments!

Photos by Bobbi Lin


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Tags: water bath, bain marie, custard, creme brulee, dessert